Notes Reading Notes

Babel 17

By Samuel Delany, 1966

The cover package and the blurb denotes this as a stereotypical classic science fiction novel, but from the first page onwards there are signs of extraordinary literary creativity which is almost the opposite of the stereotype.

Delany wrote this when he was 23, and it shows through in the frantic pace of the plot and his fearless attempts to break rules and defy stylistic conventions of the genre through passages that juxtapose poetry, strange postmodern wordplay and breaking up the text on the page into fragmented columns.

Thematically, the two most interesting things about this for me were the brilliantly flawed linguistic conceit—the idea of building a novel around the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—and the subtle streak of anti-authoritarianism running through the entire thing—typified by a scene where a staid bureaucrat has a transgressive sexual experience with a virtual consciousness which changes his whole outlook. War is framed as a dreary attrition that grinds a society down.

Babel 17 can be positioned as a gateway between the buttoned-down conventional 1960s military/space scifi and the next generation of ‘new wave’ scifi, as well as prefiguring the high concept of His Master’s Voice.